Jill McCorkle: Walking around with your eyes and ears open

April 16, 2013
By Bill Krueger

The Alumni Association and the College of Humanities and Social Sciences are hosting a book signing and reading to celebrate the release of novels by Jill McCorkle, professor of practice of creative writing at NC State, and Elaine Neil Orr, a professor of English at NC State, on Wednesday, April 24, at the University Club.  The event includes a seated dinner with an opportunity to hear the authors read and answer questions during dinner. After dinner, the authors will be available to autograph their novels. Registration closes Wednesday, April 17.

McCorkle is the author of four collections of short stories and six novels, five of which have been named as New York Times Notable Books. Her most recent, Life After Life, published by Algonquin Books in March, centers on the lives of several residents and workers at the Pine Haven Retirement Community in the fictional Fulton, N.C.

Much of Orr’s debut novel, A Different Sun, is set in Nigeria, where she spent much of her childhood growing up as a child of missionaries. Her novel draws on the real-life 1853 diary of the wife of a missionary from Georgia who moved to Nigeria.

Look for interviews with McCorkle and Orr, as well as excerpts from their new novels, in the summer issue of NC State magazine, accompanied by an interview with NC State professor Wilton Barnhardt, whose novel, Lookaway, Lookaway, is due out in August.

McCorkle and Orr spoke with freelance writer and former NC State editor Cherry Crayton about their writing process, books that influenced them and their next projects. Today, we feature excerpts from the interview with McCorkle. Yesterday, we posted excerpts from the interview with Orr.

mccorkle_jill-231You’ve written about your father’s hospitalizations and the fact that he suffered from depression. Has that influenced your writing? I look back now and see that my childhood seems pretty easy and pampered compared to what I know so many go through, but I think I was really aware of the darker parts of adulthood when I was a child. I think I had worries that most  7- and 8-year-olds don’t have. I shouldn’t say most, but some. …It’s like everything else on the journey, you can’t regret anything out there or you wouldn’t be where you are now. You can’t start pulling threads away.

Where do your ideas for stories and novels come from? It is that combination of what you see blending with imagination. Imagination is a key part of our experience. We see something we don’t understand, but our brain is determined to make sense of it and to keep firing suggestions as to what might be the reason this is happening. I like to tell my students that it is your brain’s job to be a couple of steps ahead of you seeking reasons. So if you’re always walking around with your eyes and ears opens open you can’t help but see a whole lot of stories.

Just yesterday, I went online and there was a news story about a gym teacher stealing from students. Your first thought is, “Who is this person?” I found myself all day yesterday thinking of the message there and the implications. …There’s a story there, and if you follow that story, you will find something really human.

Life After Life is set in Fulton, which is also the setting in many of your other novels and which you’ve said is based on your hometown of Lumberton, N.C. Why do you keep going back there? For people who know my novel Ferris Beach, Abby [a 12-year-old in Life After Life] is living in the same house as Katie [one of the characters in Ferris Beach]. And the cemetery behind Pine Haven is in both books. You wouldn’t know it, but I know it. I’ve constructed this universe, and I guess it’s a lot easier to stay with that. It also looks a lot like Lumberton looked when I was about 8 or 10 years. I just scooted Lumberton about 30 minutes to the coast.

What’s challenging for you when you’re writing? It’s not enough to just accumulate parts on the page. You have to then really pick and choose and decide what deserves attention and why. To me that’s the real challenge of putting a novel together, and the real exciting part.

What were some early books you read that made a big impression on you? In sixth grade, the book I was asked to not check out anymore was Where the Red Ferns Grow. As a kid, I was much more drawn to biography, and the ones I read incessantly over and over again were those of Helen Keller, Marie Curie and Abraham Lincoln.  And then I was pretty young in junior high when I read Diary of a Young Girl and Little Women. I think to be a young person who wants to write — the combination of Jo March, Anne Frank and Helen Keller — they are all so much about just trying to put life into perspective.

What are some recent books you read that you’d recommend to others? I will have to say Ron Rash’s book of short stories, Nothing Gold Can Stay. And Holly Goddard Jones’ The Next Time You See Me — that was one I could not put down.

What are you working on now? I’ve got a new novel started, and a whole batch of ideas for short stories for I’ve gotten while working on the novel and didn’t have time to work on. And there’s a play I really want to try. I’ve never done a play. I’m very interested in monologues and the power of a single voice telling a story.


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